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Revolutionary Evangelicals

Joe Ehrmann is an ex-NFL star and the leader of a movement he calls "Building Men for Others" -- and he has a radical critique of masculinity in America.
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There is a revolution going on inside American evangelical Christianity -- a radical return to the spirit of the earliest Christian communities. Its fundamentals are love, community and multiculturalism. It's true that those values in one form or another have guided every Christianity. But this new revolution preaches -- and organizes -- explicitly against consumerism, sexism, racism and even "imperialism" (their word choice, not mine!) in a way that feels more than a little leftwing. And yet, their appeal is mind bogglingly broad, already deeply involving millions of mainstream Americans in a way the left could never hope to.

I've been vaguely aware of this movement since working as a union organizer all over the Midwest and South in the '90s. Over the years, I got to know hundreds of workplace leaders, many of whom were also leaders in their evangelical churches. Over and over, the stories they told me were irreconcilable with my Northeastern Liberal stereotype of what a Bible Banger was supposed to be.

Eventually, I went out exploring myself and I'm still trying to make sense of what I have found in various churches, communities, book and bands. As far as I can tell, no one has written about this revolution from a secular perspective yet. Last night, I had one more mind-blowing experience with this rising culture, and I've finally decided to put pen to paper on this topic.

Joe Ehrmann is an ex-NFL star, a high school football coach and the pastor of a Baltimore church. He is also the leader of a movement he calls, "Building Men for Others" -- and has a radical critique of masculinity in America. He spoke to a large crowd in a Duke stadium at an event that was planned long before the rape allegations against the Duke Lacrosse team consumed Duke and Durham. Some saw God's hand in the timing of Ehrmann's appearance -- after all, the idea to bring Ehrmann was born out of a men's Bible study group. Most of the crowd were boys and young men with sports teams dragged by their coaches, many still in their uniforms from afternoon practice. The coaches had largely been turned out by publicity in local churches.

While his main topic was gender, he kicked the evening off on racism: "America's original sin -- our country was founded on the genocide of one people, and the enslavement of another." I remember how radical we felt in college when we said things like that -- and how far away we felt from ever being able to have a conversation with the American people as a consequence. But last night, even the audience's large portion of suburban, polo-shirt-tucked-in, white men didn't seem to bat an eyelash.

Ehrmann's critique of America didn't end at emancipation though. "We live in the richest, most powerful country in the world, and yet..." and he ran through a long list of the horrifying statistics that detail American poverty. "And so America's challenge -- and Durham's challenge -- is: how do we come together as a community where every man, woman and child has the opportunity to live with dignity? How can America -- How can Durham -- come together into a community that can bring an end to poverty, systemic racism, rape, domestic violence and child abuse? -- a community that doesn't put possessions before people?"

He was going to tell us how.

My Northeastern Liberal stereotyping would tell me that this evangelical, football-playing preacher's solution would be to turn inward and backward, into the family, and back to those good old traditional values. But Ehrmann doesn't want a "return to families values" until we do a whole lot of work on just what that might mean. "The home," he said, "is now the most dangerous place in America for women."

Masculinity in America, Ehrmann said, is defined by three things: athletic ability, sexual conquest, and financial success. He brought life to this definition with his own story of growing up in Buffalo, the son of a mostly absent father, and going on to become the high school tough guy, big man on campus, and finally NFL star.

Perhaps the most radical thing he said all night was that, "in this culture, we don't raise boys to be men, we raise them not to be women," getting at the misogynist aspect of sexism. "Boys are taught by grade two to identify the 'sissy' and attack and humiliate him." While he didn't come out and say it, he was dangerously close to going after homophobia.

And how is masculinity supposed to be different from femininity, according to Ehrmann? It's not.

"So here's what it means to be a man -- and it's the exact same thing that it means to be a woman -- it is about our humanity: 1) it's about relationships -- about being capable to love and be loved -- about what kind of friend, brother, husband or father you are. And 2) It's about making the world a little bit better of a place -- it's about making a difference in the world."

What's so impressive to me about all of this is the drive that these revolutionary Christian organizers have to bring real change to their own culture -- and the phenomenal success they're having doing it. It's always astounded me how generally bad the white, middleclass left has been at walking the walk among their own people. Our tendency is to do what I did out of college: I left my Connecticut suburb for the poorest enclaves of America I could find. We are obsessed with going off and "saving" poor people, people of color, people in developing or war torn countries -- when really, our greatest gift to humanity would be if we could change the hearts of the world's most powerful, and often the most disruptive, group of people: our own.

Ehrmann has a concrete plan and actual organization to infect every sports coach in America with his revolution. He has 10 minute lessons for them to give before practices on poverty, educational equality, racism, sexism, rape and child abuse. He even has a pledge for players to take about respecting women -- designed to help prevent the "650,000 rapes that occur every year in America." Ehrmann says he can reach 40 million kids a year through sports. So who's game for going after chess club?

* Visit Ehrmann's site Building Men for Others.

* Get the book about his work, Seasons of Life.

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